Looking back on 2020 with Marc Allum

By Geoff Harris

It’s been a very eventful and unpredictable year for the antiques business.

We look back on some key developments and trends with Marc Allum, art and antiques writer, broadcaster, consultant and lecturer, and, of course, a Learning with Experts tutor.

How are you looking back on this year?

It’s been a really interesting period. I am quite lucky as I have experienced it from a retail perspective, and also from an auction perspective. I do auction consultancy, while my wife Lisa runs a retail antiques business – both online and as a physical shop.

The upshot is that business has been pretty good this year for people who are well established and on top of the digital world. That has strangely given auction houses a boost; increased demand means that suppliers are having to buy more to meet that demand, so prices have gone up at the auction houses. I think for a lot of businesses, it has not been a bad trading year.

Marc Allum Credit James Bignell Photography

What have been some downsides?

Sadly, many auction houses have slimmed down staff numbers, even with government support and some buoyant demand during the lockdown. People had time on their hands to browse online, and the courier companies were still able to deliver, but still, some auction jobs were lost.

The downside of buying online for dealers is that you are not able to physically view auctions. You don’t know exactly what you are buying, as some auction houses don’t have the greatest expertise when it comes to condition reports and photography.

For example, my wife Lisa has bought objects without being able to view them, and when they arrive, the legs are broken off etc. That is very galling.

Marc Allum Cheltenham Lit Fest. Credit James Watkins

So, do you think online auctions will become the norm?

Twenty years ago, when Sotheby’s got in right at the beginning, it was a disaster, but now online auctions have really evolved. The model works pretty well most of time. But the antiques trade is still a tangible physical business.

The thrill of buying is finding the sleeper, the hidden gem… things don’t tend to slip through so much these days, but there is still no substitute for rooting through 30 or 40 boxes and finding amazing things nobody else has spotted. Online auctions are here to stay but I hope we can return to physical auctions as soon as we are able.

Any sales or stories which really caught your eye?

There have been some really high-flying results – too many to mention, really. Asian art auctions faced some problems as the second lockdown happened just as most of the big Asian art sales were going online and getting ready. Woolley and Wallis shifted their dates, while Dukes Auctioneers, who I do consultancy for, went ahead and did absolutely fine. They were only the only auction house running a major sale that week; people had money and wanted to spend it.

Every time I look at the Antiques Trade Gazette, I see some big results. A William De Morgan charger (below) sold for £27,000 for instance, which is a lot. Decorative arts have been good this year, but people still want top-end stuff, for example, Wally Birds.

I don’t think the design market has been quite as strong this year and I feel there has been a greater push for more traditional antiques. It’s heartening there is a shift towards lusher decorating and quality antique items, many of which are still reasonably priced.

What are your predictions for next year?

Hopefully we will be getting back to normal much more. Whatever happens with a deal, the situation with the EU is worrying, however. I know plenty of traders who ship backwards and forwards or are buying in France permanently. There is no doubt Brexit will affect trade.

Also, the ivory embargo comes in next year – it will not only alter a lot of ways we deal with ivory, but other animal products eventually. It’s going to be hard with a chest of drawers with ivory escutcheons, for instance, or a museum-quality piece, and I worry there is going to be a lot of confusion over what we can and cannot sell.

There are challenges too for high street antique shops but if you have good stock and meet customers’ needs, there are also reasons to be optimistic.

Geoff Harris

I am a journalist and photographer and currently work as the Deputy Editor of Amateur Photographer (AP) the oldest weekly photographic magazine in the world. Before that I served as the editor of Digital Camera, Britain's best-selling photography magazine, for five years. During my time as editor it became the UK's top selling photo monthly and won Print Publication of the Year at the 2013 British Media Awards. As well as being lucky enough to get paid to write about photography, I've been fortunate to interview some of the greatest photographers in the world, including Elliott Erwitt, Don McCullin, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill and Steve McCurry. This has been a wonderful learning experience and very influential on my photography. Beyond writing, I am a professional portrait, travel and documentary photographer, and reached the finals of the 2016 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition. I am a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society and hope to take my Associateship whenever I can find the time. In addition I write about well being/personal development and antiques collecting for a range of other titles, including BlueWings, the in-flight magazine of Finn Air.

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